Festering Unrest in Xinjiang

China is in the eye of the storm. More specifically, it is the city of Urumqi, in the south-western province of Xinjiang, where ethnic riots have resulted in atleast 156 dead and thousands arrested. The rapidly deteriorating situation has led the Chinese President Hu Jintao to cut short his visit to attend the G-8 summit in Italy in order to tackle the crisis.

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Published: Thu 9 Jul 2009, 9:34 PM

Last updated: Mon 6 Apr 2015, 12:32 AM

As thousands of troops poured into the city to stop the rioters from further violence, the situation threatens to assume more ominous proportions. The last resort security measures were implemented as the Han Chinese pledged an all out revenge against the Uighur Muslims—constituting a minority of eight million among Xinjiang’s twenty million population. It is reported that paramilitary forces were deployed around Uighur populated areas to secure them from attacks by advancing Han Chinese rioters.

Though the recent outbreak, the bloodiest in China since the 1991 Tiananmen Square riots, were reportedly sparked by what is claimed to be a false incident, it has unmasked the deeply disturbing fissures in China’s restive south west. Xinjiang, an autonomous region of China, was amalgamated into China in 1949 after a short-lived hiatus of independence as East Turkestan, created after a prolonged struggle by Uighur Muslims. The Turkic speaking Uighurs have long strived for independence and claim systematic cultural annihilation at the hands of the State. The fact, that the Chinese government has also directed and encouraged large-scale internal migration of Han Chinese to Xinjiang, as part of a deliberate policy to dominate the Uighurs supports their claims. In addition, deprivation of amenities available to other groups, have led to further exacerbate Uighur grievances. Despite strict government control, the Uighurs have continued to protest their plight, as evident in periodic bouts of unrest. Predictably, the Xinjiang government has blamed the current outbreak on Uighur separatists abroad and accused them of instigating the unrest.

Besides, secession, China has also levelled charges of terrorism against the Uighurs. The ideological card has been used to link Uighur separatists with the al Qaeda, ever since the terrorist group launched the September 11 attack. The capture of Uighur Chinese in Afghanistan and subsequent detention in Guantanamo may have been incriminating but for the sheer lack of evidence. Most probably, the Uighur Muslims have been seeking support based on an ideological affinity. Such has been the case of ethnic minorities in situations where their nationalist struggle, often become an ideal recruiting ground for ideological based radical groups.

Xinjiang is extremely important for China, not only for its geostrategic significance at the crossroads of Central Asia, South West Asia and Russia, but also for its industrial development to serve as the hub of China’s economic and trade relations. President Jintao’s decision to curtail his visit to Italy is significant in this context. In all likelihood, though dissent will be crushed with impunity, as per past track record of the Communist regime, it would be far wiser to address the root problems of the Uighur people as well as other minority groups within China. Sun Tzu’s treatise on war may be a timely read at the moment, that attributes the highest significance to retaining people’s support for successful governance.

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